The role of animals in your plan for health
I have read many articles suggesting that everyone stop eating meat. They argue that eating meat is bad for your health, bad for the planet, and just plain cruel. There is evidence to support that statement, but there is also a way to eat meat that doesn’t fall into any of those categories, and it does things that a vegetarian/vegan diet cannot do.
Humanely raised animals produce nutritious foods that work in harmony with the environment. It is much more sustainable to buy local, grass-fed beef any day of the year than it is to buy most fruits and vegetables in the winter. So eating meat is not automatically bad for the planet, and it doesn’t have to be cruel. But can it be healthier than the vegetarian or vegan diet that is so widely recommended? Let’s see...
If you stop eating meat, dairy and/or eggs, here’s what you’ll miss out on:
Vitamin A: We know that Vitamin A is important for healthy skin, teeth, bones and eyesight, but we’re not fully aware of its power. I hate to say it, but there is absolutely no plant-based source of vitamin A. None. Carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, and other vibrantly-colored produce contain beta-carotene, which is a precursor of vitamin A, but is not vitamin A, despite what the Nutrition Facts label on your frozen spinach may tell you. Your body can convert beta-carotene to Vitamin A, but it is not an efficient process. For one thing, beta-carotene is fat-soluble, meaning that your body won't absorb beta-carotene from a snack of carrots. Second, the potential of converting beta-carotene to vitamin A is significantly lower in raw vegetables than in cooked ones (1). Third, the more beta-carotene you eat, the less you are converting to vitamin A and the more is stored in the liver, with 1:6 being the generally accepted ratio of beta-carotene converted to beta-carotene absorbed (2). Lastly, depending on a person’s genes, some people are even less efficient at making the conversion (3).
While you can try to find the proper balance of beta-carotene to optimize conversion to vitamin A, you could just consume vitamin A in its true form. Fish and the liver from grass-fed animals are among the best sources of true vitamin A (as the liver is where vitamin A is produced). Eggs are also a great source of vitamin A, with eggs from pastured hens having a 38% higher concentration of vitamin A than their caged counterparts (4).
But it's not as simple as making sure you get enough vitamin A. This particular vitamin should be consumed with the proper ratio of Vitamin D...
Vitamin D3: This is another vitamin that is fat-soluble and can really only be found in animal products, conveniently accompanied by vitamin A. Vitamin D is crucial for the immune system, and for absorbing certain important minerals (calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc). The only natural plant source of vitamin D is mushrooms. (I’m not counting fortified, processed foods.) But, the vitamin D in mushrooms is not the same vitamin D as is found in animal sources. The most common form of vitamin D is cholecalciferol (D3) and the form found in mushrooms is ergocalciferol (D2) and is much less potent (5). You can also produce vitamin D by getting enough direct sunlight, but this can be difficult to accomplish, especially in the winter.
Great natural sources of vitamin D include fish, grass-fed liver and eggs. (See a pattern here?) These foods contain vitamins A and D together, meaning you don't have to coordinate your vegetables to get the right ratio. But it gets a little bit more complicated, because in order to absorb vitamin D, you need…
Dietary Cholesterol: The topic of cholesterol--is it good or bad?--is surrounded with some controversy. Two things we can agree on: cholesterol is part of every cell in your body (so it's pretty important), and dietary cholesterol cannot be found in plant foods. But you cannot absorb dietary vitamin D without it; that’s why whole milk is also known as "Vitamin D milk." So even if you’re eating a heap of mushrooms (for vitamin D) and carrots cooked in olive oil (for vitamin A), and you've found the right proportions of each to optimize beta-carotene absorption, you’d still need cholesterol to properly absorb vitamin D and thus get the right ratio of vitamin A to D. To be fair, your body can produce all the cholesterol it needs from carbohydrates, but there is the belief that eating dietary cholesterol saves your body from expending energy and resources to produce it.
CLA: Conjugated linoleic acid is a nutrient most known for its ability to fight cancer. It also enhances metabolism, increases muscle mass, fights diabetes, improves immunity levels, and lowers cholesterol and triglycerides. But you can only get this substance from animal products, specifically grass-fed meats, dairy and eggs.
Vitamin B12: Another vitamin only available either in animal products or a pill, B12 is important for good energy levels, heart health, and preventing osteoporosis and nerve damage. It also regulates your mood, improves brain health and facilitates DNA replication to keep you feeling and looking young. Organ meats, eggs and milk are all good sources of vitamin B12. There is evidence that B12 supplements are more efficient than B12 from animal products, but it is important to keep in mind that B12 is necessary and must come from one of these sources.
Making a resolution to eat healthier is a good idea for any day of the year. But eating healthier is not as simple as just eliminating meat from your meals. There is a lot at stake for your health. (It's also worth noting that people have different dietary needs. No one diet, including an omnivorous one, is best for every single individual.)
Instead of simply cutting meat (or all animal products) out of your diet, consider being a bit pickier about the meat, dairy and eggs that you do eat. (Start by familiarizing yourself with our Terms to Know.) You'll find that you can still enjoy an omnivorous diet and good health.